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The Very Air

The Very Air

by Douglas Bauer

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Luther Mathias sells "snake oil" in scrubby West Texas dirt towns. He learns that substance is never a substitue for style and eventually develops his own remedies that promise to cure any ailment a man might suffer. In time his imagination and ambition combine to mold him into medicine's version of Elmer Gantry: loved and hated, imponderably wealthy and famous,


Luther Mathias sells "snake oil" in scrubby West Texas dirt towns. He learns that substance is never a substitue for style and eventually develops his own remedies that promise to cure any ailment a man might suffer. In time his imagination and ambition combine to mold him into medicine's version of Elmer Gantry: loved and hated, imponderably wealthy and famous, powerful and pursued.

More than just a portrait of a flamboyant, resourceful schemer, The Very Air is a compelling exploration of human motives and hidden meanings. It is a detailed picture of America's myth of the rugged individual in the psychological and narrative tradition of The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane. With a resonant sense of the period and culture, Douglas Bauer evokes the freewheeling feel of the old Southwest in the early part of the century and delivers an allusive commentary on the charlatans of our own era. The Very Air shows, through storytelling both exhilarating and chilling, that the past is prologue and that our personal histories indeed shape the course of our individual futures.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The first half of this Dickensian novel by the author of the highly praised Dexterity is so suspenseful, poignant and irresistibly entertaining that even when the pace slows toward the middle of the narrative, readers will remain engrossed in hopes that Bauer will again discover his early inventiveness and verve. Although no resurrection occurs, the story is memorable by virtue of the conception of its protagonist, Luther Mathias. In an opening scene electric with portent, 10-year-old Luther's mother dies on their isolated Texas ranch in 1905, and Luther must ride alone to send a telegram to his father. Put in the care of his eccentric Aunt Joyce and Uncle Ray--as jolly a pair of swindlers as one could encounter--Luther joins their traveling medicine show. When death again interrupts his existence, Luther is warped by a sense of betrayal; moreover, he has adopted his uncle's view of human beings as prey waiting to be duped. Eventually, Luther becomes an (uncertified) ``doctor for male diseases,'' and his life crosses those of beautiful movie star Alyce Rae and her husband Billy Boswell. Overcome by hubris, Luther pretends to be a surgeon who can rejuvenate Billy's sexual performance via monkey gland implants. His subsequent rise as a medical charlatan marks the story's decline; the narrative loses its juice and becomes a cautionary tale of a self-made man propelled by anger, resentment and a need for power. Bauer makes some wonderful observations about life in America during the 1900s, and about humanity's eternal need for illusion, and his characterization is sharp and funny. But as Luther becomes inflated with self-importance, the narrative, too, becomes bloated and slow, and its early promise is dispelled. (Sept.)
Mary Ellen Quinn
When Luther Mathias' mother dies in 1905, his father sends him away from the family livestock farm in rural Texas to live with Uncle Ray and Aunt June and his cousin, Ray, Jr. Uncle Ray runs a kind of traveling medical show, hawking worthless cures through Texas, Oklahoma, and western Arkansas. By the time Luther sets out on his own at the age of 17, he has taken to heart his uncle's vision of the U.S. as a place where a man can keep making his own rules as long as he stays one step ahead of the law, a place where, if you don't like the history that's been handed to you, you can invent another one. Through most of the 1920s, Luther reinvents himself, at one point working as a bartender on Memphis' Beale Street, at another as an assistant to a doctor peddling fake syphilis cures in Chicago. Finally, Luther sets himself up as Dr. Luther Mathias, star of the "Medical Question Box," a radio program broadcast from Del Rio, Texas; founder of the Mathias Clinic; and eventual owner of his own radio station. At the clinic, Luther performs what is known as the Mathias operation, a procedure intended to increase sexual potency. Partly because of this operation, Luther is drawn into the Hollywood world of film star Billy Boswell and his beautiful wife, Alyce Rae. It's a scandal involving Billy and Alyce that finally brings Luther down. Bauer is a skillful storyteller, with a sure grasp of the time and place in which his story is set. Luther himself remains a cipher, no better known to the reader at the end of the book than he is at the beginning.

Product Details

Foreverland Press
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496 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

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What People are Saying About This

William Kennedy
"Douglas Bauer is a novelist of enormous power and boundless talent."

Meet the Author

Douglas Bauer has written three novels, Dexterity, The Very Air, and The Book of Famous Iowans, each of them set in small towns, in Upstate New York, in Texas, and in Iowa. Their subjects and interests are as varied as their settings, although reviewers have pointed out that they all concern themselves in some fashion with mothers’ unpredictable presences and absences and the effect of that unreliability on their sons.

He has also written two non-fiction books, Prairie City, Iowa and The Stuff of Fiction. The first covers a year of reunion with the tiny farm village of the title, where Doug was raised and to which he returned at the age of 30 in order to try to understand the place where he grew up and, not incidentally, some things about himself as he reached that critical age. The second is a series of essays devoted to the craft of fiction writing. The essays cover the elements of character creation, dialogue, narrative strategies, how to start and end a story, and many more. There are exercises accompanying the essays.

In addition to the books Doug has written, he’s edited two anthologies, Prime Times: Writers on their favorite television shows; and Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals. These anthologies feature contributions from some of the most prominent writers of our time, including Sue Miller, Andre Dubus III, Aimee Bender, Richard Russo, Claire Messud, Nick Hornby, the late and very great Barry Hannah, and on and on.

Doug’s stories and essays have appeared through the years in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Esquire, Tin House, The New York Times Magazine and Sunday Book Review, The Massachusetts Review, Agni, and other publications.

He’s received grants in both fiction and non-fiction from The National Endowment for the Arts, and he’s taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard, Smith, The University of New Mexico, Rice, and since 2005 at Bennington College. Doug’s courses there include literature classes in the works of Charles Dickens, his favorite author in the language, as well as Twentieth Century writers such as Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

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